Los Altos' Packard Humanities Institute connects to Turkey's Zeugma mosaics

Photo By: Courtesy of Los Angeles Turkish Culture &amp TourismOffice
Photo Courtesy Of Los Angeles Turkish Culture &Amp Tourismoffice

The Los Altos-based Packard Humanities Institute helped rescue mosaics, above, now housed in Turkey’ Gaziantep Zeugma Mosaic Museum.

Longtime Los Altos Hills resident Cathie Perga traveled all the way to Turkey this fall and found a connection close to home.

The Packard Humanities Institute – independent from the Los Altos-based David and Lucile Packard Foundation but housed in the same Second Street building – assisted with emergency archaeological rescue work on a trove of ancient Roman mosaics in the Roman city of Zeugma on the Euphrates River in eastern Turkey.

The institute, a nonprofit arm run by President David W. Packard, son of the late Hewlett-Packard co-founder and a Greek and Latin professor since 1987, “fosters public interest in the history, literature, and music of the past,” according to its website. Its efforts center on archaeology, music, film preservation, historic conservation and early education. Past projects included restoration of the Stanford Theatre in Palo Alto and the California Theatre for the San Jose Opera.

Perga, a retired teacher and active volunteer, traveled with a small Odyssey tour group in southwestern Turkey near the Syrian border. She kept in touch with the Town Traveler via email.

She let us know when she toured the Gaziantep Zeugma Mosaic Museum in Gaziantep, a stop on the ancient Silk Road. With the Euphrates and Tigris river basins nearby, the region is home to intriguing ancient ruins – not to mention Turkish pistachios.

“Yesterday in Gaziantep we visited the enormous new museum housing Roman floors from over five villas which had been close to the Euphrates,” she wrote. “I cannot tell you how breathtakingly beautiful they are. (It’s) very nice to hear that the Packard Humanities Institute took on the project of moving the mosaic floors to the museum.”

In 2000, the Packard Humanities Institute began funding the rescue and conservation of approximately 800 square meters of mosaic from Zeugma, which was being drowned by the Birecik dam on the Euphrates.

The new wing opened in 2005, making Zeugma the largest mosaic museum in the world. The site received the 2012 TripAdvisor award of excellence from readers.

The tall bronze statues of Mars and Aphrodite are must-sees, as are the second-floor Roman villas.

Perga said Turkey’s museums have explanations in both Turkish and English. She added that she would give the museum five stars.

Because Turkey is sheltering Syrian rebels and refugees, however, Perga wrote in her email that her tour group’s scheduled stop in Harran, a 6,000-year-old village of beehive houses, had to be canceled. That meant she wouldn’t be exploring the narrow road to Urfa, a biblical town noted as the birthplace of Old Testament patriarch Abraham.

“Good luck finding Gaziantep on a map – it is in southwest Turkey not far from the border,” Perga wrote, alluding to the Syrian Sunni rebellion.

Although acknowledging that the change in itinerary was disappointing – “We shall skirt the troubled areas, and skip Harran, where Abraham spent some years” – Perga said she looked forward to cruising the Euphrates the next day.

Perga’s group did visit, by camel, a “caravan inn,” among many other places, in a Silk Road town that has been inhabited continually for more than 4,000 years.

“The camel drivers stayed in large inns (called “Han”) with huge courtyards,” she said. “I can only imagine how it smelled. Cleaned up, the inns resemble two-story monasteries .... with covered walkways all around – quite interesting.”

Perga called the city of Izmir “dazzling,” and said that near Cappadocia, women appeared more westernized, wearing more European and American clothing. Closer to Istanbul, she noted the cosmopolitan atmosphere and freedom for women.

“The freedom here, with women using hookahs in cafes – and dressed in burkas or not – is wonderful,” she said.

Istanbul begged comparison to another city Perga recently visited.

“What a vibrant and terrific city,” she wrote of Istanbul, which straddles the continents of Europe and Asia. “One cannot help but compare it with Cairo.”

Perga visited the Egyptian capital two years ago, at the dawn of the Arab Spring.

She was also surprised at how spic-and-span Istanbul’s streets were, writing, “and it’s so clean! The windows on transport buses and trams sparkle, and the streets are being swept constantly.”

Perga brimmed with praise for Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city.

“I haven’t mentioned yet the wonderful Bosphorous teeming with ships, the archaeological treasures in the museums.”

Many Turks speak English, Perga noted, making travel in the region easy.

“It is so good to be here where Europe meets Asia,” she wrote.

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